Lawyer: Former principal misused funds but didn’t take lunch money
By Patrick McArdle
STAFF WRITER | January 28,2014
Patrick McArdle / STAFF PHOTO
Michael W. Heller, right, the former principal of the Readsboro Central School, stands next to his attorney David F. Silver on Monday in Bennington criminal court. Heller pleaded innocent to a felony charge of embezzlement and a misdemeanor count of petty larceny.
BENNINGTON — The former principal of the Readsboro Central School was arraigned on Monday on a felony charge of embezzling grant money from the school and taking money that had been allocated for school lunches but his attorney said the latter charge was “completely unfounded.”
Michael W. Heller, 40, of Fairfax, pleaded innocent on Monday in Bennington criminal court to the felony charge and a misdemeanor charge of petty larceny. He was released without bail.
Attorney David F. Silver, who represented Heller, said after Heller’s arraignment that the allegation that his client had taken students’ lunch money was based on reports made by the woman who collected the money.
“Her word is going to turn out to not be sufficient or reliable,” Silver said.
However, Silver said Heller “doesn’t deny that he improperly borrowed money, which he intended to pay back, to help his mother who is suffering from cancer.” Silver said there were other “various situations” in which Heller’s mother was “desperate for money.”
“(Heller) made a bad decision out of his desire to help his mother,” Silver said.
According to Silver, educators involved with the Readsboro school told him that Heller was a “transformative figure for good in the Readsboro school system and an excellent school administrator who changed the atmosphere there into one of professionalism, collegiality, compassion and caring.”
“It’s a shame that this happened. It’s a loss really for the school system of a great administrator. No one is more remorseful and ashamed than Michael Heller,” he said.
Silver also pointed out that Heller had cooperated with police during the investigation.
Silver said he didn’t know whether Heller would voluntarily surrender the license that allows him to serve as a school principal.
During Heller’s arraignment, Silver asked Judge David Howard to seal two of the paragraphs in the affidavit filed by Trooper Lauren Ronan. Howard granted the request for the time being but said he anticipated challenges by the media and prosecutors.
Ronan said in her affidavit that the Vermont State Police had been contacted on Dec. 19 by Richard McClements, interim superintendent of the Windham Southwest Supervisory Union. Ronan said both McClements and Karen Atwood, the supervisory union’s business manager, had conducted an investigation of Heller and concluded he was misusing funds.
The money came from a $5,000 grant by the Lowes Corporation; $1,000 from the Macy’s Corporation; and almost $100 from Target.
While some of the money appeared to be used for legitimate school purposes, Ronan said she believed a little more than $4,500 was used personally by Heller.
A school employee also gave Ronan information that money that students brought in to the principal’s money to pay for their lunches was missing. However, while Heller later admitted to taking money from the grants, he denied taking any lunch money.
Ronan said Heller came to the Shaftsbury barracks of the Vermont State Police on Jan. 6 with his mother and Silver.
“In the interview, Heller admitted to misappropriating the grant money received for his own use,” Ronan said.
She said that Heller said he had a blood disorder and treating it had, over time, “caused him financial strain.” Ronan said Heller also told her he had given money to his mother for her medical bills and for $1,500 she owed in outstanding motor vehicle tickets.
Many of the purchases tracked to what was called a “principal’s account,” where the grant money was kept, took place at retail businesses like gas stations, supermarkets, department stores and convenience stores, according to police.
Heller had already resigned as principal in December, before he was charged.